Building on Brilliance: CSU's Growing Honors Program Looks Toward Tomorrow
By Bill Sutley
he research biochemist remembers the U.S. senators and House members he met while studying political science in Washington. The CPA remembers the kangaroo boxing matches she witnessed while studying biology in Australia. The communication graduate remembers how much better she learned Spanish while living with a family in Mexico.
Thanks to word of mouth about such experiences and the success of its alumni, CSU's Honors Program has seen skyrocketing growth in recent years and developed a reputation for producing graduates who learn how to reach beyond their disciplines and routinely expand their comfort zones.
In the 15 years since its birth in 1998, the Honors Program has grown ten-fold, from 19 students then to more than 200 last fall. University officials and Honors Program boosters believe there's room for even more growth and success, if the promise of expanded resources becomes reality.
To even be considered for CSU's Honors Program, applicants must have a high school GPA of 3.5 or better, combined with a score of 1,200 or higher on the combined math and verbal SAT score or an ACT composite score of 26. Once accepted, Honors Program students must take more rigorous versions of core courses, maintain a 3.4 GPA, take specialized honors courses that eventually lead to completing a thesis, engage in campus leadership or community service and participate in several enrichment extras.
Taking the Pulse of Politics
Joshua Fields '03, the biochemist who got a taste of politics in D.C., had several options for attending college, but CSU's new Honors Program, the reputation of CSU's biology department and a serious but treatable recurring health issue helped him decide to stick close to his Columbus home.
It's apparently paid off.
He finished his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 2011 and now remains as a post-doctorate researcher in cell biology at Georgia Regents University, which was Medical College of Georgia when he started there. (Furthermore, the bride he met in an Honors Program biology class, Tiffany Lauren Floyd '03, has also finished her Ph.D., in developmental biology, and has a post-doc at the Augusta school).
"Now that I've met a lot of people from around the state who have come to MCG, I've found the (CSU) biology program and also the Honors Program really propelled me further along in my studies than these students and really prepared me for graduate school in ways that other schools had not trained their students," Fields said.
A political science professor organized the Washington trip for Fields and other Honors Program students who got a first-hand look at politics on the national stage.
"We met senators and congressmen, and that really made for an excellent experience," Fields says. "And even though I now have focused on science, it's always something in the back of my mind that really captured my interest, thanks to the interactions I had through the Honors Program and the interests of professors."
Also thanks to the Honors Program, which emphasizes study abroad, Fields had a chance to study Tropical Ecology at Andros Island, a part of the Bahamas in the Caribbean.
"This is something I would have not been able to do without the assistance and, let's say, the push from the Honors Program," Fields said. "I actually got a lot of experience in research through the biology department, but some of the actual extra research projects I got into, like tropical ecology, were completely owed, in my opinion, to the Honors Program."
Today, Fields' research is gaining national attention, including an article published recently in Nature, where he discussed how Vitamin E can help cells repair and even strengthen their membranes. That's part of a focus on wound repair at the cellular level that could lead to significant advances in treating genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy.
Producing 'Global Citizens'
Tom Hackett, CSU's provost and vice president for academic affairs, says the emphasis on study abroad is part of what makes the CSU Honors Program unique when compared to those at other universities.
"I think, ultimately, that's what the Honors Program does: It prepares our students to be citizens of the world, to be global citizens," he says.
That's important to society because the "ubiquity of Internet access and the growing ease of travel" can make it possible for some of CSU's brightest Honors Program alumni to work with colleagues in other countries on "global problems," Hackett says.
Like others at Columbus State, the provost believes the success of CSU's Honors Program opens the possibility of it evolving into a standalone college, complete with endowed professorships and more resources to help students share their research at distant conferences.
"You need to have the resources to have already successful students challenged at this upper level," he said. "They're looking for something really spectacular."
Establishing an Honors College for a university the size of Columbus State would be a bold move, Hackett says, noting it's a change that's already been discussed by Honors Program faculty.
"When it comes to something like this, first you want to crawl, then you want to walk, then you want to run and then you want to sprint," he says. "I think we're at the level where we're running, and we can run faster before we get to a sprint."
Melanie Simmons Powell, '05, '06, a certified public accountant manager for a Columbus accounting firm, came to CSU as an early childhood education major, but a few babysitting experiences helped her calculate that spreadsheets and tax law might be more pleasant to work with, for her at least.
One vivid Honors Program memory was the biology course she took in Australia, where she was up-close with sharks and other fish while diving the Great Barrier Reef. And then there was the sultry afternoon when the class spent hours observing a savannah watering hole, not seeing much for their trouble.
"We were just melting," she recalls. "And then, as we were about to leave, this whole herd of kangaroos came up and it was like this big impromptu boxing match. It's something you would never see in a regular biology class."
Like many other current and former Honors Program students, Powell remembers also the emphasis on developing problem-solving and leadership skills.
"Any skills you pick up, they can apply to any profession you choose," she says.
During her same Australia study abroad trip, she remembers the importance of problem-solving for one of her classmates who had a customs inspector question some scuba gear the inspector deemed "suspicious."
"It also helps you develop team-building skills and helps you gain a sense of independence and self-reliance — the ability to adapt to problems as they arise," she says.
Two current students credit the Honors Program for helping them emerge from the shells they developed as quiet, serious students.
"Probably one of the best things the Honors Program has done for me involves leadership," says Michael J. Anderson, a senior headed soon to medical school.
It started simply enough — with the challenge given him, as a chemistry major, to take the lead in a "mocktails" demonstration involving non-alcoholic drinks prepared for one of the Honors Program's non-credit enrichment classes. From there, the challenges kept building until he found himself vice president for financial affairs of CSU's Student Government Association and president of the American Chemical Society affiliate.
"Without the Honors Program, I can't say I would be in the SGA," he said.
Rachael Lambert, a senior accounting major, says taking one of the program's leadership classes helped prepare her to become treasurer of Honoris Causa, the organization of Honors Program students that Fields helped found when he was at CSU.
"Doing that helped me learn more about budgets for my major," she said. "I'm an introvert and usually like to just do my work and go home. But with the Honors Program, I've been able to take part in extracurricular activities, involve myself in more community service events and meet people from various majors I wouldn't have normally met."
Among Honors Program cheerleaders in CSU's administration and faculty, there's often talk of how those best and brightest students infect others with their zeal for learning.
"It raises the academic discussion by having students of that caliber on campus," says Honors Program Director Cindy Ticknor, an associate professor of mathematics and the third leader in the program's young history. "It's a natural fit for honors students to be academic leaders on campus. They're pervasive through all student organizations, including fraternities and sororities. Just by the nature of their existence on campus, they're going to be influencing others and encouraging others."
Kate Hargrove, '11, is in a unique position to evaluate the impact of the Honors Program as a communication graduate who transferred from a larger university and a current graduate student at CSU. She's also a graduate assistant in Alumni Relations, where she occasionally talks with fellow program alumni.
"I would say the thing that stands out most to me was the camaraderie," she says. "It's a community inside a large community."
As with many other students, she was challenged by the requirement to engage in graduate-level research as an undergraduate and write a thesis. (Fine arts students can combine an abbreviated thesis with a performance or art project.)
But, like so many others, study abroad produced meaningful memories. Hargrove took Spanish in high school, but she got her ultimate challenge when she spent four weeks living with a family in Cuernavaca, Mexico, meeting with classmates, also living in homes, for daytime sessions at a local university.
"We got completely immersed in the culture," she says. "You were never able to shut off from speaking and understanding the language. It was difficult at first — like a puzzle. "
Focusing on the Future
The future of CSU's Honors Program is something of a complex puzzle as well. In 2009, the university developed a strategic plan that called for significantly increasing the number of students in the program, to more than 350 students by 2015. Two years later, the number of students in the program had grown by 50 percent.
Ticknor is impressed that only 36 percent of Honors Program students are on scholarships expressly designed for its students.
"That means we have 64 percent participating because of what the program has to offer," she says. "The reason students want to participate in the program is because we can offer a program that advances them and advances their careers."
In November, CSU's Tower Society, the donor group that's done the most to support the Honors Program, pledged to reconfirm its commitment to the program's future and even increase the amount of annual support designated for the best and brightest at Columbus State
Ticknor says that support is crucial to the Honors Program being able to keep up with its commitment to smaller class sizes, providing scholarships for top students, increasing the variety of challenging core courses, one-onone faculty mentoring for independent projects, enrichment seminars and field trips, and priority consideration for study abroad scholarships.
"We need to sustain the numbers," she said. "Our graduates, they're doing some amazing things. They have been able to leverage what they do in the program."
Ticknor anticipates it won't take long for the Honors Program to expand from 200-plus students to 300-plus, comprising 3-5 percent of CSU's undergraduate enrollment within two years.
"Increased enrollment expands the number of courses you can offer," she says. "With that number you can offer a wider range of courses students can select from."
Ticknor starts building her class during the summer with a special Honors Program summer orientation.
"The best part of my job is getting to know the students," she said. "Part of the benefit of the program is to meet other people who are focused on academics and extraordinarily interested and passionate about what they learn."
Later in the school year, those Honors Program neophytes and their more experienced counterparts will be invited to meet members of the Tower Society, a group of alumni who each commit to giving a minimum of $1,000 annually to CSU.
Retired Synovus Financial Corp. Board Chairman Jimmy Yancey, '64, who remembers the earliest talks of the Tower Society targeting the Honors Program for special support, says he always looks forward to meeting Honors Program students.
"It gives us a chance to see the benefits of our investment," he says. "All of us who've gone to these meetings have come away with the idea this is a good investment."
To learn more about supporting the Honors Program, contact Alumni Relations Director Jennifer Joyner at Jennifer.Joyner@ColumbusState.edu or 706-507-8956.
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Captions for photos, top to gottom:
Magazine cover, Spring 2013 Focus (linked to "flip book" version.
Senior Matthew Perry, left, discusses his Honors Program thesis on the relationship between earthquakes and climate with his faculty mentor, Clint Barineau, associate professor of geology and Columbus State's 2013 Educator of the Year.
Kayla Brown, holding microphone boom, prepares to interview Dr. Joseph Zanga, right, chief of pediatrics at a Columbus hospital, 13-year-old Jalen Salter (on bed) and his grandmother, Sheila Salter. Brown, a senior communication major is producing a documentary as part of an Honors Program project that has her working with CSU's Nonprofit and Civic Engagement Center and a local education foundation. The documentary aims to raise awareness of asthma, which often strikes Jalen, and how it can be treated in younger patients.
Martha Newell, a senior Honors Program student, pets a moose at an Alaska nature park during a break from a 2012 research internship that had her camping out for several weeks and tracking dwindling caribou herds on one of the Aleutian Islands. Later, Newell was recognized at a national conference for her presentation related to the research.
Zachary Bryant, '12, and Bjorg Hilmarsdottir, a junior from Iceland, pause for a photo while taking a noncredit Honors Program enrichment course. They were both vocal performance majors when they took the Culinary Arts course taught by Jamie Keating, a local chef, at River-Mill Event Centre.
Samantha Worthy, a chemistry major in the Honors Program, has been analyzing water at 12 sites on Lake Walter F. George to detect the presence of certain chemicals and their impact on the lake as a source of drinking water.